Insights from "Global Design Studio in the Age of Pandemics"
25 June, 2020

The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture/Journal of Public Space), Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong), and Miodrag Mitrasinovic (Parsons The New School, New York, USA), part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced architecture, design and planning schools and universities around the world to pause face-to-face teaching and shift to online learning platforms, with students, professors and researchers bound to their places of residence. This webinar focused on the learning format of remote global design studios and discussed challenges and opportunities.

Hendrik opened the webinar by setting the context of remote learning under COVID-19, showing that most students were taking online classes under COVID. This posted a challenge specifically for design-related curriculums, where personal and physical experiences are key. Such context gave birth to the experimental online design studio that took place on June 8-13, 2020, a partnership of design programmes in Auckland, Hong Kong, and New York in collaboration with City Space Architecture and The Journal of Public Space, with the aim to develop new formats for global online public space learning programmes. The design studio produced comparative studies of New York City and Hong Kong, focusing on health disparity and discrepancy between rich and grassroots neighbourhoods along metro lines.

 

Miodrag shared experiences of planning global design studios for regular curriculums at Parsons, where the studios served as important vehicles to develop global learning partnerships to create a network of hubs of production of urban knowledge and modalities of urbanist practice. In particular, Miodrag presented three modalities and shared thematics that help transcend disciplinary and cultural boundaries, such as the universal need for public space, pandemic regimes, climate change, and three key dimensions of the global urban design studios - propositional, cultural, and discursive. 

Terri Tan, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong & Sian Singh, Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand - Workshop presentation

The 6-day global design studio led students to explore the areas of Corona Plaza, New York and Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. First via demographic research which revealed the immigrant population and the diverse types of buildings and parks in Corona, followed by diving deeper into how spaces were made with the help of NGOs and the government, and how they were used before and during the pandemic, and how NGOs helped out the community during the pandemic. Such observations prompted students to create solutions including food banks for NGOs to donate food to ease financial burden, rotating market space for street vendors, and temporary modular accommodations to ease overcrowding. 

While in Sham Shui Po, the team focussed on the homeless population that was largely affected during the pandemic as some of their sleeping spaces (such as parks and restaurants) were closed, and thus suggested the solution of flexible tent designs that serve multiple purposes. 

Stephanie Cheung
Project Manager, iDiscover Asia, Hong Kong

iDiscover is a charity that documents “the spirit of place” including tangible heritage buildings and intangible stories and culture across South East Asia with a local-centric approach, and presents them in the form of a mobile app, illustrated maps and pop-ups. The goals are to make heritage relevant for a younger generation, to make locals proud, and to create dialogues. Stephanie shared a 6-step methodology of collecting local insights, highlighting the importance of working with local NGOs and residents to reveal neighbourhood narrative and map sites that matter, and to share the outputs in the community. 

Learning from previous experiences, Stephanie shared the realization of how multi-layered cultural mapping and local insights contribute to locally grounded urban designs and interventions. Such mapping exercises have not only mapped culture and heritage, but successfully mapped intangible social networks, fabrics and preferences and built trust among social workers, practitioners, and residents. The outputs become ‘namecards’ to enter the neighbourhoods and have kickstarted a continuous process of meaning and culture co-creation. Stephanie wrapped up by raising the question of how do we leverage local insights and community networks for better designs and vice versa, how could design output feedback into local communities.  

Setha Low
Director, Public Space Research Group, Center for Human Environments at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, USA

“Anthropologists believe in cross-cultural research... the time spent on the ground and the experiences reframe the way we think about space and design.” Setha suggested the concept of remote ethnography, a form of inquiry based on a range of remotely accessed data and procedures, and still helps uncover cultural rules, beliefs, feelings, and practices. 

 

Based on the Toolkit for the Ethnographic Study of Space (TESS), Setha suggested steps that can be done remotely so that we could still understand and capture places without bias: 1) mapping behavioral, movement, and physical traces with Google Maps and Open street mapping, 2) participant observation based on Youtube videos, documentaries, social media and still record the kind of materials used, the questions asked and the reflections, 3) interviewing using phones, Skype and Zoom where the best way to interview is to work with local community members, and have someone on the site become a member of the research team, 4) documenting history, 5) scraping and content analysis through social media scraping, travel sites, Instagram content analysis, daily diaries with photographs and more, 6) analysis to identify themes and patterns.

Georgeen Theodore
Principal & Co-founder, Interboro Partners, New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA

As a practitioner and educator, Georgeen is particularly interested in public space, not only its spatial character, but also how people use the space via close observations. Such principle of close observation underpins the Master of Infrastructure Planning at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where Georgeen ensured students would go out, observe and interview people who use the space.  

Georgeen first explored global design studios with the project SEZ to EZX: Shenzhen Xrossroads, turning a former warehouse and industrial zone into residential in 2015. The key challenge and question was to develop a global studio curriculum that still took close observation into account and could create meaningful urban design proposals rooted in local conditions. To achieve this, the team first referred to the book Factory Girls to understand the lives of young women migrants, and the students were asked to identify an individual in Shenzhen and created personal journalistic accounts and illustrated their weekly itinerary, and thus understanding their socio-economical trajectories as migrants. Baidu also served as a great tool for the team to “walk the streets” to understand pedestrian mobility. Different observations were then organised into a “clues map”, and contributed to the final proposal of building on existing agglomerations of small and mid-sized firms to develop the area. Georgeen termed such an approach as “forensic urbanism”. Students later had the chance to visit the site personally and realized that the observations from afar were not so different from first-hand observations. Georgeen later applied the same approach in other global design studios in Mumbai, Athens, and Lima. She still thought that being able to visit the site is better, but there is a huge value of this far-site approach, to be resourceful and to zoom into certain parts carefully, refining observation skills and cultivating an important sense of empathy.

Respondent: Ali Madanipour
Global Urban Research Unit (GURU), Newcastle University, United Kingdom

Recent global pandemic revealed how existing habits need to be rethought, including international travel. The key question that a design studio would have to answer is how do we get to know a place, through mediated and experiential information. Ali agreed that recent experience of remote working, which relied on mediated information and edited representations, has saved up time and costs. This also allowed a variety of choices for running design studios as data collection could be conducted remotely and thus opened up sites for selection. Yet, Ali raised three limitations of mediated knowledge, namely sensuality, sociality, and criticality. Sensuality refers to how the relationship with the surrounding environment is multi-sensual and how direct experience is irreplaceable. Sociality refers to the possibility of co-presence with other users in public space, as the lockdown has revealed the urge to connect with one another physically. Criticality is the possibility of interrogating information. On the other hand, experiential knowledge also has the limitation of superficial understanding of places. Ali thus called for a blended approach of mediated and experiential methods.

Respondent: Annabel Pretty
Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand

Annabel started with a Maori proverb, translated as “What is the most important thing in the world? It’s the people, it’s the people, it’s the people”. As she observed, the common thread of all the presentations and sharings was relationships. Whether it be the relationship between project, cultural and discursive; critique, review and knowledge transfer; architecture and people and NGOs: culture and heritage and placemaking; ethnography and regraming of relationships; and lastly the relationship with empathy; being in the place defines the studio. Annabel felt that global design studios work if there’s a will of relationships of the people that want to make it work.

Respondent: Manfredo Manfredini
Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Manfredo considered this particular moment a possibility to reflect on what is happening locally, and discussed how the system of local capitals is impacting on both structure and superstructure informing daily life in academia. Manfredo considered this particular moment as a unique opportunity to comparatively reflect on the local occurrences of global phenomenon of destabilisation of educational institutions that calls for a critical analysis of the multidimensional questions of social and spatial justice. Observing how the pandemic has exacerbated criticalities of dynamics of relational networks across all institutions of our social infrastructure, he foregrounded how the current mode of delivery of international tertiary education has major resilience issues. He considered how the financial viability of this model, with international students not being able to join schools, has challenged even leading international universities, reopening the rethinking of the social role and agency of these primary civic institutions in constituting key places of inclusion, equality and relationality. Seen within this contest, the experience of this global design studio emerged as a platform to develop an understanding and a test of the potential of dialogue and collaboration for the constitution of complex autonomous dimensions of political and cultural critical spheres. It was an attempt to differentiate and to understand how particular elements that constitute relational power determine particular spatial conditions that need to be addressed, and in fact, these conditions have become so acute and obvious in the pandemic. All in all, the studio was also a chance to take a position against a form of globalized education and generalized exchange that obliterates differences in desires, attitudes and practices.